Philosophers are very interested in the nature of trust. And, in this brief segment, what I’d like to do is try to give a taxonomy of the variety of positions that philosophers have taken on that nature.
In order to do so, I’m going to make one simplifying assumption, which itself is not uncontroversial but is widely shared, which is the assumption that trust is a kind of reliance: to trust someone is to rely on them in a certain kind of way.
And the question that philosophers ask is, what is the type of reliance that constitutes trust?
So, let’s think about trust as follows: to trust someone to do something is to rely on them to do it and to do so out of a certain attitude towards the proposition that they will do it for the right reasons.
If you think of that as the basic nature of trust, the philosophical questions are two: What is the right attitude? And what are the right reasons? And you can think of philosophical disputes about the nature of trust as disputes along one of those two dimensions.
Let’s begin by focusing first on the attitude question. If to trust someone is to rely on them out of an attitude that you take towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, the question is, what is the attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do it for the right reasons?
This view derives from a paper by Diego Gambetta entitled “Can We Trust Trust?” And according to Gambetta, we believe that people will do things for the right reasons, and it’s that belief that underwrites our reliance on them.
I call this the “belief view.” This view came under scrutiny among philosophers in a very influential 1986 paper by Annette Baier entitled “Trust and Antitrust.”
She disagreed with the belief view and thought that the attitude central to trust couldn’t be just believing that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.
The problem with the belief view, according to Baier, was two-fold: first, it failed to distinguish trust from mere reliance, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly), it failed to make sense of the idea that when you trust someone and your trust is violated, you feel a sense of betrayal rather than mere disappointment.
And, in fact, that thought that the violation of trust occasions a sense of betrayal, not mere disappointment, has led many philosophers, after Baier, to think that the belief view is false.
A second view, again concerning the attitude that’s central to trust, is what I would call the “affective attitude view.” This view is owed to a philosopher by the name Karen Jones, who wrote a paper entitled “Trust as Affective Attitude.”
And what she wanted to try to capture was the idea that there is an emotional flavor to trusting. So, her thought was that the attitude central to trust wasn’t mere belief but was something like a felt optimism towards the proposition that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.
That view too has come under some scrutiny. And an objection derives from a 1960 paper by the philosopher Horsburgh entitled “The Ethics of Trust,” suggesting that there are cases in which we trust even though we feel no optimism about the likelihood that the person will do as we’re trusting her to do.
The sort of trust that Horsburgh talked about was what he called “therapeutic trust.” These are cases in which you trust someone not because you’re optimistic that they’ll do as you trust them to do but because you’re hoping that they will recognize that you’re trusting them to do this and that itself will get them to do as you trust them to do.
This sort of therapeutic trust doesn’t conform to the attitude that the affective account lays down. Nevertheless, many philosophers continue to think that there is an affective attitude towards trust, and some have suggested that the best way to think about therapeutic trust, cases where it seems as though there’s no such attitude, are as exceptions to a more general rule.
Cases of the therapeutic trust kind have become interesting to philosophers for another reason, explored at length in Phillip Pettit’s 1996 paper, “The Cunning of Trust.”
Pettit argued that in these kinds of cases, where you trust someone in the hope that their recognition of being trusted will actually make them trustworthy, both gives them a reason to be trustworthy and gives you a reason to believe them — to believe that they’re trustworthy.
So, these kinds of cases have become interesting in their own right.
In reaction to these kinds of cases and in defense of the affective attitude view, two recent papers have suggested that the attitude of optimism is in fact appropriate in all cases of trust that aren’t of the sort that we call therapeutic trust.
For example, Karen Jones in a recent paper entitled “Trust and Terror” and Victoria McGeer in a paper entitled “Trust, Hope and Empowerment” have argued that in all cases of trust that aren’t therapeutic trust, this sort of optimism is in fact appropriate.
A third view about the relevant sort of attitude that constitutes trust is owed to Richard Holton in a paper entitled “Deciding to Trust.” He calls this view the “participant stance view”: to trust someone is to take a participant stance towards them.
The attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reason is the attitude of expecting them to do so, with the disposition to feel a sense of betrayal if they don’t.
That view, however, appears to assume one of the things that we would like our theory to explain — namely, why it is that a sense of betrayal is appropriate when one’s trust is violated.
This brings us to the fourth view about the sort of attitude that constitutes trust, a view that’s known as the “normative expectation view.”
To trust someone is to normatively expect them to do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, where to normatively trust someone is to impose a standard on them where you regard them as being such that they ought to do it.
This view, which might be seen as a special case of either the belief view or the participant stance view, has been developed in Walker’s recent book entitled Moral Repair.
Two excellent resources for philosophical approaches to trust are Carolyn McLeod’s entry trust in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Judith Simon’s entry trust in the Oxford Bibliographies online.
I, myself, have relied heavily in this presentation on those two resources.